Europeana – Aggregating Europe’s cultural heritage

Former worker at Knowledgeland, Harry Verwayen started off his presentation by mentioning what he would not cover in his talk, namely viable revenue models to apply in this day and age (since according to Verwayen, this has been greatly covered on Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly’s blog). Thereafter, Verwayen directly mentions what he finds an effective business model for publishing: dual licensing, wherein “what you sell is the legitimacy.” This is also the approach in the Europeana initiative, which was funded by the European Union, and supported by many European cultural institutions.

Europeana logoAfter the Europeana project was commissioned in 2005, five years later the portal had expanded with an developer API and with a large network of participating institutions. Also, the entire platform is published as open-source. Currently, the platform holds over 13 million digitized cultural objects, that are aggregated from the different databases. While users can freely access the content (be it images, texts, sounds or videos), the records are indirectly advertisements as they contain links to the original archives.

By opening up these archives to the public, cultural content can easily get distributed across multiple sources (via the API), or it can engage end-users to “participate and work with the material.” Working with the material would for example mean investigating a very specific topic within just one platform, like reports in newspapers in France during the first World War. With such an aggregator, we might also more easily gain insights into which archives ‘privileges’ which topic.

Thereafter, Verwayen elaborated on the cost and benefits. As the portal relies on advertising, visibility is key for getting the traffic going. Therefore, one of the approaches is to upload material to large open platforms (for example, Flickr has a cost-ratio of 1:160). Another indirect benefit is that of using open-source code, which reduces the costs for other institutions to participate in the project. Most importantly, value is generated by putting the material into the public domain, which at Knowledgeland resulted in a cost-ratio of 2:3.

But, according to Verwayen, the “problem is not funding”, it’s rather “how to sustain digitalization and rights.” Roughly, the archived content falls under three categories. The first one, ‘digitization’ is the ‘easiest’ to digitize, since the rights expired or didn’t have any license to begin with (mostly classics). Secondly, there’s ‘digitization and rights’, this category is more troublesome since the content is often protected by copyright-holders who are hard to trace. Thirdly, there’s the ‘rights’ category wherein the cultural object is already digital (or digitized) but copyrighted.

In conclusion, Verwayen raises the question of how to formulate a sharing licenses that’s more compromising towards cultural archives. Also, how to organise the collective funding (by museums, institutions and governments)? How to ensure the continuation of digital heritage by these stakeholders, and (finally) how to work on revenue models for copyrighted cultural objects with have low intrinsic value? These are a few of the open questions that will affect the sustainability of initiatives like that of Europeana.